IRELAND underlined their status as the world’s top team and Guinness Six Nations title favourites by brushing aside Wales 34-10 in Cardiff.
Warren Gatland’s return as Wales head coach had no fairy-tale script, with Ireland inflicting a considerable dose of reality.
They had the game won by half-time through tries from number eight Caelan Doris, lock James Ryan and wing James Lowe – a 70-metre interception score – while captain Johnny Sexton kicked three conversions and two penalties.
Wales, 24 points adrift at half-time, were vastly improved in the second period and Ireland did not score between the 27th and 72nd minutes, but the damage had already been done and flanker Josh van der Flier’s late try, converted by Ross Byrne, secured a bonus point.
Full-back Liam Williams scored a try for Wales – he was also yellow-carded in the second half – and Dan Biggar added a conversion and penalty, yet they never threatened to prevent Ireland from claiming a first Six Nations victory on Welsh soil since 2013.
Ireland, the world-ranked number-one side, host France next weekend in a game that could shape the title’s destiny, while Wales head to Edinburgh for an appointment with Scotland when Gatland will demand an immediate response.
It was another defeat after a miserable 12 months that featured humiliating home losses to Italy and Georgia under Gatland’s predecessor Wayne Pivac, while off the field the Welsh Rugby Union has been rocked to its core by sexism and discrimination allegations in the organisation.
And Ireland were in no mood to allow Wales a reprieve, dominating every critical area, most notably the battle up-front.
Scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park was ruled out with a hamstring injury as Ireland were forced into making a late change with Conor Murray replacing him, while Munster’s Craig Casey provided bench cover.
Wales had been forced into changing their line-up on Thursday, with Williams coming in for full-back Leigh Halfpenny, who suffered a back spasm during training.
Ireland needed just two minutes to deliver a reminder of their quality, scoring from an opening attack that was all about patient build-up play.
They went through the phases close to Wales’ line, before Doris powered over and Sexton’s conversion gave Ireland a dream start.
Ireland’s high-tempo game had Wales in all sorts of trouble, and they moved 14 points clear with only nine minutes gone.
Wales could not deal with Ireland’s impressive ball-carriers, and after sufficient dents had been made in the home defence, Ryan claimed their second try, with Sexton again converting.
Wales needed something to stir them, and wing Rio Dyer almost provided it when he broke clear following an Irish midfield mistake, but full-back Hugo Keenan beat him to the ball behind Ireland’s line.
Biggar opened Wales’ account through a 15th-minute penalty, but Sexton quickly cancelled that out with a penalty from in front of the posts, closing a dominant first quarter from his team.
But the visitors had no intention of slowing down, and Wales were unlocked again when Biggar’s intended pass to Williams found Lowe instead, and he sprinted clear to touch down, before Sexton again converted.
Ireland were in cruise control, leading 24-3 with almost an hour of the game remaining, and Wales already appeared in damage-limitation mode.
Another Sexton penalty made it 27-3 at the interval, and even when Wales flanker Jac Morgan found a way over Ireland’s line, prop Andrew Porter got underneath him to prevent a try.
Wales began the second period with far greater intent, and Williams’ 45th-minute try – converted by Biggar – at least gave the home supporters something to shout about.
It was a far better performance by Wales, with Dyer a consistent threat to the Irish defence, yet the lineout remained Wales’ problem area in contrast to Ireland’s exemplary set-piece efforts.
Liam Williams was then sin-binned for a shoulder-led challenge on Sexton, and Ireland moved past 30 points through Van der Flier’s score that underlined Wales’ shortcomings.